Friday, April 11, 2008

the origins of the Louisville Slugger

From Patrick Boucher (a former student of mine!) in the C-J...

Occasionally a city has a legend. Sometimes that legend crosses paths with opportunity. When it does, often the city and the legend are changed forever. This is the story of how two of Louisville's legends became Louisville's stories.

On June 17, 1861, Louis Rogers "Pete" Browning was born to Samuel and Mary Browning, of 1427 W. Jefferson St. in Louisville.

As one of eight children, Pete grew up competing. By the age of 20, Pete was 6 feet tall, weighed 180 pounds and was a talented athlete. The local professional baseball team, the Louisville Eclipse, noticed -- and signed Pete to his first professional major league contract, at $60 a month. It was a walk-on opportunity for a hometown kid, a steal for the Eclipse and a hit for baseball. In his first year with the Eclipse, 1882, Pete not only led his team in batting, he led the entire American Association League with a .378 average.

Unfortunately, Pete's performance at the plate was matched only by his fumbling in the field. Later in his career, during a less than spectacular fielding performance, The Courier-Journal would say of Pete's fielding, "He couldn't see a balloon in the field, almost every hit in his territory got away from him."

But in 1882 all was well. Louisville had a growing legend, his future looked bright, and he fit the bill as an 1882 sports star.

Skip ahead to early April 1884, a warm spring day, a baseball day. The Louisville Eclipse was in town, and Pete Browning was playing. The lure of the ballpark was too much for many workers. A young apprentice woodworker from downtown decided it was a better day for baseball than for work. Early afternoon found him at Eclipse Park awaiting the duel between Louisville's legend and opposing pitchers. As Pete made his way to the plate, the crowd's excitement grew. Big hitters draw the crowds. The pitcher wound up and threw, and Pete was ready. With a powerful swing Pete connected, but the crack of the bat was actually the sound of the bat cracking. Pete had shattered his favorite bat.

The young woodworker in the crowd might not have been the best worker in his shop, but he knew an opportunity when he saw it. Going onto the field he approached an upset Pete Browning, told him to come with him to his shop after the game, and together they'd make him a custom bat that wouldn't break and would help his hitting. Pete agreed.

After the game, Pete and the woodworker went to the shop on First Street near Market. The rest of that day and into the night they worked on the new bat. The woodworker shaped the bat and Pete took practice swings until it was the bat he wanted. The following day Pete got three hits. Pete's career was enhanced, and the 17-year-old apprentice woodworker, John "Bud" Hillerich, had just made the first Louisville Slugger.

Pete, and the Louisville Slugger, went on to greater fame and more titles. According to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, Pete again won the league batting title in 1885, batting .362. In 1887, he hit his career best with a season of .402. Pete finished his baseball career with a lifetime batting average of .341. The Baseball Encyclopedia lists Pete at 13th in lifetime batting average in the history of baseball. That's two places behind the legendary Babe Ruth, and three places ahead of Lou Gehrig....

After his retirement from the game, his health deteriorated and then...

Finally on June 7, 1905, Pete was declared a lunatic and committed to the insane asylum at Lakeland. Three months later Pete died at the old City Hospital, now known as University Hospital. The local headlines read; "Pete Browning 'Out' of Life's Game." Pete lies today in lot 549 in Cave Hill Cemetery.

But not everyone forgot. In 1984, Hillerich and Bradsby, with help from Mayor Harvey Sloane and the city of Louisville, erected an impressive headstone on lot 549 in Cave Hill Cemetery. It marks Pete's grave, and the inscription tells his story.

As for the woodworking apprentice, John "Bud" Hillerich: He lived another 62 years after that ballgame of 1884. In time, he hired a hardware salesman and golf enthusiast named Frank Bradsby. Together they grew a firm that is a Louisville landmark. Although some have questioned the authenticity of the story of the Louisville Slugger, no one doubts Bud Hillerich's love of the game of baseball. According to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, Bud, still working for the company at the age of 79, took time off the job, again, to attend a professional baseball meeting.

He died en route -- and lies today in the same cemetery as Pete, Cave Hill.


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